Photo by Jack GouldMaralyn diPiazza fully expected approval of an entertainment permit for her three-month-old, self-named Long Beach restaurant when her application came before the Long Beach City Council on April 3. A few days before, a representative of the zoning office told her she had been green-lighted by all the essential departments (fire, police, health, planning and building) and that she wouldn't face any opposition at the council meeting. Everything seemed peachy.
But the morning of the meeting, diPiazza was sucker-punched. A phone call from Long Beach Councilmember Frank Colonna's secretary informed her that Colonna would be speaking out that night about the permit—voting to approve it, but with new, highly restrictive conditions. Among them: no live music or entertainment on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays; entertainment on Wednesdays and Thursdays limited to one hour each night between 10 and 11 p.m.; and entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays allowed only from 10 p.m. until midnight.
This sudden, mysterious change sent diPiazza's booking schedule reeling. She immediately canceled the Sunday-afternoon jazz sets (which drove customers away so dramatically that the restaurant is now closed altogether on Sundays), as well as the Wednesday-night blues sets, which went from 9 p.m. until midnight. Gone also is the Thursday-night karaoke between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. ("Karaoke was kicking ass," says diPiazza. "We were doing about $1,200 on Thursdays.") As for Friday and Saturday nights, diPiazza is now forced to knock off an hour earlier than her usual 1 a.m. cutoff point.
Why the drastic, unexpected action from Colonna? The polite answer would seem to be misinformation on the councilman's part. At the City Council meeting, Colonna told a visibly distraught diPiazza that her restaurant property had not previously held an entertainment license. In fact, the place had held such a license for years in its previous incarnation as the Captain's Quarters. Colonna should have known this since, as part of the licensing process, Long Beach city officials are required to investigate a property's license history. (If diPiazza had opted to keep the Captain's Quarters name, none of this rigmarole would have happened; the entertainment license would have simply carried over).
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Colonna misspoke further when he claimed diPiazza's was not a restaurant, but more of a nightclub. "It's more of a restaurant now than it was when it was the Captain's Quarters, which was more of a bar," diPiazza says. "Colonna told us after the meeting that he had never been to the restaurant. If he had, he would've known that. He said he was far too busy to come into every restaurant in his district." But Colonna told the Weekly that he had been to the restaurant not long after the temporary entertainment permit was approved in January.
At the council meeting, Colonna said he was spurred to act after his office received complaints about diPiazza's from "a significant number of residents" living in wealthy Park Estates. However, the neighborhood begins a few hundred feet behind not only the restaurant but also a business complex that acts as a buffer zone. The councilman didn't divulge what the complaints entailed, who the residents were, or what exactly constituted a "significant" number. In a later conversation with the Weekly, Colonna estimated the number of complaint calls at 12, but not one of those 12 residents showed up at the council meeting to voice opposition to diPiazza's license.
This opposition was all news to diPiazza. She has received no complaints from either her neighbors or the police. She even canvassed a few of the homes closest to the restaurant, and she couldn't find a single person who expressed problems with either the bands who have played there or the restaurant's patrons.
Possibly contributing to the confusion is that Maralyn's husband, Mark diPiazza, books the bands at the Long Beach club the Lava Lounge—on the same street, about a mile away. Colonna seemed to be lumping the two rooms together when he told Maralyn diPiazza at the council meeting, "My understanding was that it [diPiazza's] was a family restaurant. However, we know that there has been some type of entertainment that may be consistent with what the other lounge has been dealing with." We assume he means the hard-rock acts at the Lava Lounge. But Maralyn has been booking music that is quieter and less likely to attract a rowdy clientele—more intimate music in a more intimate room. "We're trying to do Bogart's 20 years ago," she says, referring to the much-missed club that used to sit in the Marina Pacifica Mall, "not a new version of Fender's Ballroom or the Foothill."
Colonna also related concerns about the Park Estates neighborhood, particularly a new park near the restaurant that's being built and a nearby day-care center (which closes at 5 p.m.). What either one has to do with Italian-food lovers or nighttime music fans, though, Colonna never made clear. He told the Weekly that he was concerned about potential loitering in the yet-to-be-built park.
"If loitering happens, then slap me and pull my license," says diPiazza. "We've offered to put a security guard in the park when it opens to make sure there's no loitering."
"My responsibility is to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood," says Colonna. "This has historically been an upscale establishment."
Maralyn responds with much exasperation. "So diPiazza's is not upscale? What we took over was a cheesy bar that had very few tables for dining. Now we have 16 tables and a menu at every table. We are not focused on selling alcohol. We actually lost a lot of the older clientele due to the fact that we no longer offer happy hour. We don't have the same kind of entertainment that the Captain's Quarters did. They had younger, more youthful bands that drew a younger crowd, and we've pretty much done away with that by booking jazz, blues, softer rock and bands that draw people in their 30s. The previous owners wanted people who drank; we want people who are going to eat."
Colonna is growing tired of the argument—and the publicity. "The diPiazzas are just making it harder for themselves by bringing the media in on this," he warns, although Maralyn says that in the few interviews she's done with reporters about her permit debacle, in each case, it has been the reporters (including this one), and not her, who has instigated the interest.
Things are getting hard for diPiazza. In the three weeks since the Colonna-led vote at the council meeting restricted diPiazza's entertainment hours, she says business at the restaurant has dropped off $2,500 per week, she's had to cut out 10 employee hours, and she has been hard-pressed to make payroll. "I had to put a note by the timecards," she says, "asking everyone to please be patient with getting their checks.
"This whole thing has really affected my income and the income of my employees," diPiazza continues. "I mortgaged my home in order to buy this place and improve it—there wasn't even a garbage disposal in here when we bought it—and I thought everything was going to be fine. But Colonna has just killed our enthusiasm. This is my baby, this is what I've dreamed of, and now I don't know if I am going to be fine. Now with these new stipulations, I may now have something I can't even sell, which means I could lose my home. Colonna just slapped us in the face."
As it stands, the restaurant's entertainment license is up for renewal again in six months. Maralyn diPiazza just hopes she'll stay in business that long.
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